Comedy and Reality: Satire and the politics of language, Pt 2   5 comments

People like to have a good laugh. When the laughter targets people in positions of social and political prominence, we experience a delicious thrill, like school kids giggling when the class clown makes rude gestures behind the teacher’s back.

We usually call it satire. Juvenile? Sure. Often necessary, though.

Consider. Part of the needs of democracy entail the requirement that every so often the prevailing crop of bastards need to get tossed on their asses so a brand new bunch of assholes can get a shot at effing things up for a while. At any given moment in a healthy democracy, at least half of society needs to have absolutely no respect for whoever is currently running things, and hence there is a constant conflict between need for social order and the unity of purpose that’s required in order to make things happen – and the corresponding need to hold the powerful to their responsibilities and shine a light on hypocrisy.

The use of comedy in the political arena most often happens when the left attacks the right, though sometimes it’s the left attacking the left, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a political allegory disguised as a fable with talking animals, portraying Lenin and Trotsky as a couple of intelligent swine. (Orwell was a socialist criticizing other revolutionary communists for hypocritically betraying the ideals of social justice by succumbing to the temptations of totalitarianism. The observation still applies, even in this case, because the leaders of the Marxist rebellion constituted a power elite and as such were a suitable target.)

The key here is that satire is always a weapon aimed at the powerful and this represents the main reason it is most often a tool of the left against the right – and the number of political satirists representing a conservative bent are so few as to be remarkable when observed. (Okay, I’ll give you P.J. O’Rourke, but that’s all. Name another one. Chris Buckley? Okay, one more then.)

It isn’t that conservatives just don’t get the joke, though maybe some of that is going on, an over-literalness among a certain set of mind that cannot get around the contradictions contained in the ironical stance. The most frequent reaction I perceive is fear, probably due to the fact that conservatives by their nature seek to uphold the existing power structures, not knock them down. As illustration, here’s a debate page from a wiki devoted to right-wing views, on the topic of “How can we protect Conservapedia by distinguishing real conservative articles from satires written liberals?” When the gap in worldviews becomes great enough, liberals often feel that exaggerating the other side is less and less necessary. The BBC notes their bio page for one of the foremost American statesmen of the last century:

When Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, the distinguished musical satirist Tom Lehrer decided that he could no longer perform. “It was at that moment that satire died,” says Lehrer, “There was nothing more to say after that.”

Even when the overall tone of a satirical piece presents an image of gentility, rationality and reasonableness (e.g., Swift’s “Modest Proposal”), when it succeeds it’s like a knife in the gut to its target, a vicious kick to the face that attempts murder not only to the established powers structure but also the elimination of any credibility among those who choose to give support.

It’s rough, sometimes ugly. It has to be. As Len Freeman, an academic studying political satire asserts (in verse):

Political satire to be most effective
Is caustic, unfair, and never objective.
With this in mind, you may ask why I’m for it.
The answer is simple: tyrants abhor it.

Generally speaking, those from the liberal-left side will be more likely to use satire against ideological foes because the conservative goal is to preserve the status quo, and means showing respect for those of positions of leadership, usually without a critical eye. It was conservatives who sported bumper stickers during the height of the Vietnam War with slogans like “America: Love it or Leave It” and “My Country Right or Wrong.” For conservatives, love for one’s country necessarily entails respect (and often adulation) for its Commander-In-Chief, and unsurprisingly, the most frequent attack on liberals tends to be that they don’t love their country enough, that they are “soft on” whatever enemy has been most recently declared, and that their loyalty as citizens is suspect.

No surprise, much the same is true over here in South Korea. And in a country still at war with its neighbor, accusations of disloyalty have potentially greater repercussions. The National Security Law here prohibits contact with North Koreans via cyberspace, and just last Friday a former army officer was arrested for operating a website “and disseminating about 13,000 propaganda postings obtained from overseas North Korean websites.” Also, last week, a young woman was sentenced to 2 years for storing 14 MP3 music files with titles praising North Korea on a USB storage device. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees website, “Interacting with North Korea’s new Twitter account can lead to up to three years in jail.” Satire is not a protected form of speech in this country, and as we saw in the altercation between Samsung and Michael Breen last year, it’s not a bad idea to label what you are doing as humor, and even then it might not help much

Last year in May, The Daily Show did a very quick joke about the sinking of the Cheonan, a maritime incident that has caused enormous repercussions in the local political landscape over here, though it seemed to get relatively little coverage in the American media. The joke earned Mr Stewart some criticism, albeit small (“… the blackness of this joke didn’t seem to serve any larger satirical purpose. It’s just offensive.”) but I don’t think anybody even noticed it over here, and speaking personally, it’s just funny enough – the hyperbole in the comparison of North-South relations to a popular board game, Battleship – to justify itself on that level of humor.

Although South Korean cable provides several channels devoted to Hollywood movies and American television shows, but the Daily Show is not among them. (It’s easy to find in the internet, though, from Comedy Central’s website.) If the segment above had been shown here – it would most likely have been snipped from the episode, and unremarked – I have a feeling that Koreans would object to it, not on the grounds of disrespect to the Lee Myung-bak regime, but rather to what they’d see as a trivialization of a very serious (and tragic) event.

Political satire is rare enough over here as to be largely nonexistent. I’ve heard it said that cultural and historical factors make it a hard thing for people to get their heads around, as well as being risky from a legal standpoint. This might be largely true, but it tends toward being a facile and largely useless description unless we can discuss the nature of those cultural and historical factors.

I’ll take a shot at doing that in the next week or so – and, by the way, there are indications that this famine of satire in S Korea might be about to change. I’ve recently learned from some of my students about a podcast recently showing some popularity, Naneun Ggomsuda, available for free on iTunes from a source called Ddanji Radio.

So, hold on, we ‘ll be …

Posted November 13, 2011 by thebobster in Uncategorized

5 responses to “Comedy and Reality: Satire and the politics of language, Pt 2

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  1. Pingback: I like Jon Stewart: Satire and the politics of language, Pt 1 « Bobster’s House

  2. Lest we forget, Chris Buckley was drummed out of the conservative magazine his father founded for not toeing the GOP line:

    IMO, humor and particularly satire is all about attacking the powerful. Better yet, it’s about making the powerful look foolish and thereby “bringing them down” to the common person’s level. The emperor has no clothes, etc.

    The modern-day GOP is all about worshiping at the altar of military power and tax cuts for Paris Hilton. There’s literally no room for satire within their mind-set.

    Self-parody? They’re amazing at that. Just watch any of the recent GOP nomination debates.

    • Thanks, I did forget that about Buckley, and I appreciate the link also.

      Yes, it’s about attacking the powerful but using laughter and ridicule as the primary weapon. There are times when Job Stewart starts to make one uncomfortable, such as when he went on Fox and basically told them stuff everyone has always wanted to say. “You’re hurting America. Please, stop it.” Yes, we applauded, but at the same time, it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t even exaggerated. It was just true.

      And some of the most piquant moments I’ve occasionally seen – more often on Colbert, the sister-spinoff of the Daily Show whose host is a parody of a conservative pundit – are when someone from the right is being interviewed and thinks it is real, thinks they are really talking to someone from their side of the fence, and then slowly starts to understand they are in the middle of a joke. It’s really quite cruel when that happens, deliciously so, though it doesn’t happen so often since the early years of the program.

  3. Pingback: ESL Reading and Vocabulary Political Satire

  4. Pingback: ESL Advanced Political Satire Part 1

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